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A mosque, a cathedral and two Liberians

February 3, 2009 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

On Saturday we finally got round to visiting the Muammar Gaddafi Mosque and Namirembe Anglican Cathedral in Kampala Old Town.

This began as purely accidental tourism for the mosque was the chosen site of an assignation with two mysterious young men who had accosted me on the street a few days earlier. “We’re from Liberia,” they had announced, seeming to think that this information would convey to me much more than it in fact did. So I just said “Yes?” Then came a garbled story about how they were traders with “150 kilos of goods” somewhere (I didn’t think they meant narcotics: they looked too clean-cut for that and it’s not the sort of thing you would start telling a fat old white guy anyway); but there was a complication to do with warehouses and customs and a missing friend who was in Mombassa but coming in a few days to sort it all out. I was loading the dog into the car and hurrying to get home before my laptop battery ran out so I encouraged them to cut to the quick and say what they wanted. They seemed as keen to get my phone number (as a ‘business contact’) as to receive a handout. Never able to resist an elaborate yarn (and they did look a bit hungry), I gave them 6,000 shillings (about three dollars) and the landline number. I never expected to hear from them again but on Friday they phoned and said their friend had come, would I like to meet her? I said how about tomorrow. On Saturday they called again and we arranged to meet at the mosque. Only they didn’t show up. But Kate and I enjoyed the mosque anyway.

It is a massive, recently completed structure with one minaret and seven domes, “the biggest mosque in Africa” several people there told us, though I imagine they must have meant the biggest in black Africa. Impressively placed atop one of the half dozen or more small hills around which Kampala sprawls, it commands fine views over the city. Altogether more imposing than graceful, in fact; from the outside at least.

The notorious dictator, Idi Amin, nominally Muslim, began the process of building a new mosque on the site back in the 1970s with financial aid from Saudi Arabia. But it was only a few years ago that Libya came up with funds to finish the job. The current Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, (whose National Resistance Movement’s network of local ‘resistance committees’ bears some resemblance to ‘Islamic socialist’ Gadaffi’s network of ‘popular councils’) has maintained friendly relations with the pan-Africanist Libyan leader. Uganda’s powerful first lady, though, Janet Museveni, projects herself as a staunch, one might even say fundamentalist, Christian and has shared platforms with, among others, the Californian evangelist and Saddleback Church leader, Rick Warren.

Ten African heads of state attended the mosque’s official opening in March, 2008, when Gadaffi outraged the Christian community by claiming in an address that the Bible was “forged” to delete original references to the prophet Mohammed. The occasion was also marred, according to a CNN report at the time, by a brawl between Libyan and Ugandan bodyguards.

Our visit is more peaceful. The armed guard on the gate hovers around and shepherds us into a small office where a large man asks if we have a camera and seems disappointed that we don’t, because “there is a charge for that.” So we scrabble deep in our near-empty pockets and come up with a combined total of 7,000 shillings, which appears to suffice for tourism with the naked eye. Kate is given a headscarf and we are assigned a guide, though responsibility for shepherding us changes hands several times as we wander about. We end up with a short, smiley cleric called Mahmood, who tells us that he makes the daily calls to prayer from the minaret, and who shows us into the main prayer hall. It is a lofty, dignified space, filled with soft, natural light; able to accommodate 7,400 of the faithful, according to Mahmood, but only used on Fridays and during the Eid. (There is a smaller space downstairs for the more routinely pious.) The expanse of deep carpet comes from Libya, Mahmood says; the wrought iron chandeliers from Egypt, but made to a Moroccan design.

Outside again I lean on a parapet and watch two gardeners—deaf, presumably—chatting to each other in sign language; while Kate takes Mahmood’s phone number in case she finds time for the Arabic refresher classes she has long planned to arrange.

We decide to prolong the outing by calling at the Namirembe Anglican Cathedral of St. Paul, on another hilltop about a mile away, now largely hidden by trees. It is a proficient, red-brick structure built in 1919, substantial but fairly modest, and yet with a hint of grandeur in its vaulted interior and stained glass. A dilapidated display case in the nave shows grey photographs of earlier structures on the site. The first cathedral, built in 1892, was a large, round hut with a thatched roof that was blown down in a tropical storm two years later. In 1895 a long, rectangular, mud-walled hut was erected, to be replaced in 1901 by a brick building with thatch rising to two sharp peaks. This burnt down in 1910, and was finally replaced by the more unequivocally European edifice that still stands, skirted in luxuriant grass, flowering shrubs and trees; like an English country churchyard, only better kept.

This Saturday the Cathedral is seeing a rapid turnover of weddings, spilling guests in their finery out of every door. When we arrive, the matrimony of Paul Nsekero and Ms. Allen Gwokyalya is being solemnised, according to an order of service that someone passes us. Video screens show close-ups of bride and groom, best man Willy Sentongo Kiwanuka, maid of honour Lydia Mikisa and a gaggle of slender bridesmaids in knee-length, scarlet dresses. Ample matrons in long, brightly patterned, more ‘traditional’ dresses ululate when the vows are spoken. Outside a photographer is arranging turquoise-clad bridesmaids around the bride and groom of an earlier wedding and the car park is filling up with guests for the next one.

A beautifully handwritten notice by the east door draws attention to three stained glass windows which are dedicated to King George V and, the notice says, illustrate “the words ‘By love serve one another’ (Gal. V 13) which epitomise the life of the late King.” It had never occurred to me to think of the last Emperor of India in that way. “In the centre light,” the notice continues, “the King is kneeling before God after his Coronation. The other lights show how God has worked in Uganda through his servants.” One of the scenes depicted in these “other lights” is “Kabaka Mutesa I asking [the British journalist and ‘explorer’] H. M. Stanley to get more teachers for the country.”

It is one of the old chestnuts of colonial historiography that the British were ‘invited’ into this part of the world by the reigning Kabaka—the ‘king’ of Buganda, one of several formerly stable kingdoms absorbed, along with numerous smaller polities, into the territory now known as Uganda. More serious historians have suggested that what the Kabaka actually wanted was European military aid to counterbalance Egypt’s growing influence in the region. What he got was stout hearted young Anglicans sent out by the London based Church Missionary Society. They concentrated on converting the clan heads at the Kabaka’s court, reasoning that this would be the best way to get the Word out to the whole population. The trouble was that Catholic White Fathers from France also arrived and followed exactly the same strategy, while the local Muslim population (which had grown along trade routes from Zanzibar) reacted with consternation to the sudden influx of proselytizing Europeans. Thus the Baganda court became divided and in 1888 the kingdom descended into a series of three-way religious and civil wars, becoming ripe for what, a century later, might be termed ‘humanitarian intervention’—in this case, Britain riding to the rescue (at the head of an army of Nubian Sudanese conscripts) and declaring the area a ‘Protectorate.’ In short, whether by invitation or otherwise, European colonialism in Uganda actually began, and made an inroad for itself, by importing the sectarian religious strife that had already afflicted Europe for hundreds of years.

The organ is pumping out Mendelssohn’s Wedding March again and it is time to go home. We get back to a message from the mysterious Liberians, saying could we change the meeting place to “a Christian church in Old Town.” Well, maybe we can try again next week-end; after all, we have yet to visit the Catholic cathedral and the Hindu and Baha’i temples.

But the Liberians are in a hurry. They phone again early on Monday, so I pick them up while taking Enrique into town to catch his bus back to university and we drive round the block a few times while they tell us their story. The “150 kilos of merchandise” they say, is gold bullion, acquired by their uncle, “a General” who fled to Côte d’Ivoire during the Liberian civil war. A Kenyan businesswoman who knows how to avoid customs scrutiny had shipped it to Kampala for them for a USD 2,000 fee, of which they have paid only USD 700, but they haven’t told her what is in the consignment, and now it is “in a Red Cross warehouse” but they don’t have any money to pay the storage charge. So they would like me to become their “father,” help to get the gold out of store and get them to the United States—in return, of course, for a share of the booty. I have to explain rather firmly, before dropping them by the kerb, that I have all the money I need (not quite true, alas) and that I don’t do crime.

Doubtless this was a scam whose sting would come when we agreed to see a sample and were asked to pay to get the rest out. Nigeria reportedly has a thriving class of ‘Yahoo boys’ who live comfortably on the proceeds of all those daft emails claiming to come from Maryam Abacha etc. Amazing that there should be enough greedy and gullible fools, even in this wide web of a world, to support such an industry. But then you think about banking and you cease to wonder.

This pair, though, made a highly convincing show of nervousness and vulnerability, and certainly didn’t know their way around Kampala. So they were either highly accomplished confidence tricksters or were in fact real, and really inept, gold smugglers. God only knows.

Nick Young
Kampala, February 3, 2009